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How to Be a Great Mom to a Toddler

Micromanaging

You're happily tucking your toddler in for his afternoon nap when he starts to panic  -- where's his favorite stuffed Big Bird toy? A peaceful nap won't occur without it!

With toddlers, there's a morning, lunch, and bedtime ritual, and you will not deviate from it. "They have no sense of what time or day it is, so a routine is the only way they know what's going on," says Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Toddler Center in New York City. "It helps them feel safe and secure when they're going through such huge developmental changes." This means you have to become the kind of boss you've always hated: the one who keeps tabs on every single thing her charges do. Nothing says micromanager like asking "Do you have to go potty?" every half hour.

It'll be worth it, though  -- for your toddler's happiness and your sanity. Avoiding unpleasant surprises and letting him know what to expect out of each day helps him feel in control, which makes him much more agreeable. If it means you have to read the same book every night, well, at least he's going to bed. Nicely managed, Mom.

Interpretation

While language really takes off between 18 months and 3 years, that doesn't necessarily make a 2-year-old easy to understand.

Toddlers tend to get uptight when you can't figure out what they're saying. Hence the need to hone your Caveman-to-English translation skills. (Does "ball" mean "There's my ball! Let's play!" or "Find my ball before I start screaming!"?)

To help you understand each other better, keep your phrases short, repeat yourself often, and stay aware of your toddler's gestures and tone of voice  -- especially important when he's upset. Even if you have no idea what he's yelling about, show him you understand he's angry, and go from there.

You'll also need this skill whenever your diction-challenged kid tries to talk to a civilian: Be prepared to translate. Unless, of course, you can't. Then you'll be lucky if you have someone even better skilled nearby. My son once asked me, very seriously, "Mommy, where does love go?" Wow. I tried to concoct an age-appropriate response, and as I rambled, he continued asking, getting more upset. Finally, my daughter stepped in to translate: "He's asking, 'Where is Lava Girl?'" His action-figure toy from a fast-food restaurant. Oh.

Diplomacy

Toddlers can be sweet little angels. Or ruthless overlords. They demand what they want, then kick and scream if they don't get it. It can be a delicate process getting yours to do the most basic tasks  -- eat, sleep, get into the car seat  -- and you're likely to be met by loud and sometimes violent objections. This is where diplomacy comes in. Of course it requires patience and understanding, but also a little sly strategy. To get her daughter, Emily, to go to the bathroom when she was 3, Rebecca Horvath of Bluff City, Tennessee, used the power of suggestion. "I'd casually tell her that we'd go to the potty before we left the mall," Horvath says. "Then I'd mention it a couple of times while we were there, and then when we were ready to leave, she'd go without a fight. It seemed more like a matter of fact than something Mommy wanted her to do." Making your toddler think something was her idea? That's diplomacy in action.

Julie Tilsner is the author of four books and is a frequent contributor to Parenting. She chronicles her attempts to feed her two kids in her blog, badhomecooking.typepad.com.

Feigning interest

Toddlers obsess. They find something that fascinates them and then eat, drink, and sleep the topic. Why? It's a big and scary world, and in lieu of mastering it, they seek to master a small slice of it. That can be a single favorite movie or an entire genre (princesses, power tools).

Faerol Wiedman, a mom of three in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, had to fulfill her son's request to visit a car wash on his third birthday. "David's obsessed with car washes," she says. "We go through all the names, like BP, Mobil, Shell, and what each one has, like dryers, soap, water, and wax. Then we watch the cars being washed. He goes on and on about them. Even my five-year-old, John, says, 'Can we please stop talking about the car wash now?' I wish I could say the same, but I have to pretend to be interested!" Just as they'll ask a million questions, toddlers will also want to share their passion with you. So sit back and let your kid teach you a thing or two. But when you just can't pay attention through another monologue about swishy brushes, there's no shame in setting your brain on cruise control and repeating "Wow!" every now and then.

Herding

It once took more than an hour to walk six blocks home from daycare when my daughter was 2 1/2. Why? Ants! Pebbles! Cracks! Maddening, yes, but not so much when you realize that a short attention span is perfectly normal and healthy for a young toddler. Everything is new and exciting, so naturally it must be explored, examined, petted, and, of course, tasted.

As much as you try to put yourself in your kid's shoes and experience sights and sounds as if it were your first time, you can't be in the now all the time  -- especially when you're busy and it feels like you always have somewhere to be. To keep your wandering toddler on course, Tovah Klein suggests scheduling in a little extra time to get from place to place. "You can't be ready in five minutes with a toddler," she says. "And they don't understand the concept of time. Try giving them reasonable and concrete warnings, like saying 'Two more blocks and then we're putting on your shoes so we can go to the store.'" And, like any good herder, if you're really in a rush, physically block any new distractions. (You're bigger: She won't see the puppy if you're standing in the way. You can pet the one you see tomorrow.)

Fashion consulting

Does your toddler insist on wearing her favorite pair of shorts over her pants  -- with the cape from her princess costume? Don't sweat the fashion faux pas. Clothing falls firmly into the "choose your battles" department.

Think of her as "The Diva." You may not dress The Diva; you may only suggest seasonally appropriate clothing. Understand that Divas must make their own fashion decisions because it reinforces their desire to be independent. Your role: Advise, carefully. Give your toddler a choice of what to wear, but limit it to two options so she doesn't get overwhelmed. And watch for cues for how much assistance she wants when she's getting dressed. "Some toddlers will be totally insulted if you help them," says Klein. So back off  -- or pretend to. You think she's just putting on clothes; she thinks she's mastering high-tech science while expressing her fabulousness. Why are you messing with the zipper on her jacket when you should be amazed at her color coordination? The Diva can accessorize like no other!

Christy Whitney, a mom of two in Long Beach, California, solved her Diva problem by combining 3-year-old Kate's sense of fashion with her need for repetition. "I found a dress she loved to wear and bought five of them in different colors," she says. "Kate got to pick the color every day."

Friendship

This is the best part: Now's the time in your child's life when he wants to hang out with you the most. Since he's adventurous but can't go too far by himself, you're his number one pal. He counts on you to show him how to have a good time  -- and being with you makes everything more fun for him. Picture one of those buddy-movie montages: You watch the penguins at the zoo, share sips from an apple-juice box, and discuss the merits of blue frosting over green. Enjoy the hanging-out aspect of having a toddler. This, in the long run, is what matters most to him. The little moments of downtime are the building blocks of a close relationship. And trust me  -- if you join him in hopping on the floor like a frog and making "ribbit" noises, he'll think you're great at this mom stuff.

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